Since 1987, the Erasmus program has helped students to do some of their degree work abroad. But now, the scholarship program has become a the victim of its own success - and funding is threatening to dry up.
According to the European Commission, the current Erasmus budget has a staggering shortfall of some 90 million euros ($116 million) which will need to be filled by a supplementary budget, otherwise students will already be hit by cuts in the current academic year of 2012/2013. What this effectively means is that a student who receives a place in the Erasmus program for 2013 cannot be sure whether his exchange year will actually take place or not.
The Erasmus program is in danger of becoming the victim of its own success: 99 percent of its budget for 2012 was already used up by October because of the program's growing popularity among students. However, the supplementary budget now needed has been met with hesitation across EU governments, despite the fact that member states have been proud in the past that funding for the exchange program was safe.
A dispute over money
Should there have been an agreement with the Commission earlier on? Doris Pack, chairwoman of the European Parliament's Committee on Culture and Education is blunt: "It's not about an agreement. We don't have to negotiate anything." The students must be given what they've been promised, she insists, demanding a supplementary budget to ensure that all the money promised five years ago is available.
There are plenty of arguments over money in today's EU. It's not only the cash for EU educational programs, but also the budget for 2013 and the financial future of the EU until 2020 - not to mention the various financial bailout packages for the struggling members of the bloc.
German Green party member and budgetary policies spokeswoman of the European Greens, Helga Trüpel, believes it is simply about cutting the right corners; for instance, tobacco subsidies. She's very critical of European Council's refusal so far to agree on a supplementary budget.
"It's a violation of contract," she says. "They have agreed on the payment that they are now not giving and that undermines the credibility of the Council and therefore unfortunately also the credibility of the entire European Union. This is a grave political mistake," Trüpel explained in Strasbourg.
Cyprus' Andreas Mavroyannis, currently chairman of the European Council , has promised a quick solution to the problem, but doesn't want to give an exact time frame. "The programs, including Erasmus, are among the most successful EU educational programs. Rest assured that the financing of these programs will not be in jeopardy for the academic year of 2012/2013," he promised.
A European success story
For the past 25 years , the Erasmus program has offered young people from across the EU the chance to study abroad for part of their degree. More than 30,000 Germans have used this opportunity in the year of 2010/2011 alone. Supporters of the program claim that Erasmus is a European success story, just as important as the common market or the single currency.
And even if students might not work as hard during their exchange year than at their home university, it was still a crucial experience for them, explained Chryssoula Paliadelli, an archaeology professor at Thessaloniki University and member of the European Parliament,
"The exchange of ideas can change our concept of the other and have a long-term impact. I see that from my own experience: I had many students from abroad study in Thessaloniki and I realized that the time spent in Greece changed their image of our country for the better," Paliadelli said.
The professor is convinced that Erasmus is important for EU integration because it helps ease conflicts and controversies. Even if it was just about this broadening of horizons, it would be already worth it and it also gives a unique chance to improve foreign language skills.
Fresh ideas for the future
The Erasmus budget covers the administrative costs behind the exchange program and the scholarships for those selected to participate. The grant is around 200 euros a month which unfortunately is not more than a small contribution to the costs for the student, says German MEP Doris Pack. She has often proposed to increase the scholarship money, but so far without success. She is hoping for improvements to the program in 2014 should the ongoing funding issues be solved by then.
"For the current program this is not possible because we have already set the amount at 200 euros, but essentially this is not fair. It means not everybody can afford to take part, but only those who have other sources of financing their year abroad - be it parents, grand parents, or a job on the side," she said.
For the future, there are plans to make it possible for students to not only spend one year abroad, but to do their entire Master's degree in a different country and to finance this with a student loan at good rates. The EU would then step in and provide guarantees for that loan, Pack explained.
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